‘Interwoven Globe,’ a 300-Year Survey of Textiles at the Met
Published: September 12, 2013
Mind your footwear. Few New York art seasons are fully under way until the Metropolitan Museum of Art rolls out a fall exhibition with enough visual thrills and historical insights to knock your socks off. Yet this year’s offering may be even more outstanding than usual.“Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500-1800,”opening on Monday, is a staggering overview of more than three centuries of art, commerce, craft and cross-cultural fertilization.
Philip Greenberg for The New York Times
Crisscrossing cultures in Europe, the Americas, Asia and India, this exhibition retraces the world’s early oceanic trade routes, using examples of the fabrics and finished textiles that traveled along them, spreading ideas about design, technique and fashion that were imitated and adapted by people in far-flung locales. The result is a feast of transcendent artifacts variously embroidered, woven, dyed and printed, and one of the great art experiences of the season. Hybridity, a favored buzzword in the art world these days, is shown to be as old as the sea.
Organized by geography and theme, the show unfolds in nine galleries, and each feels like its own treasure chest, worthy of hours of pleasurable study. All told, the exhibition presents some 130 textiles and nearly 30 garments, along with a smattering of related paintings, prints and books. There are quilts and bedcovers, tapestries and wall hangings, and curtains both domestic and religious. Among the wearables are shawls and capes, kimonos and vestments, jackets and lavish ball gowns made of imported silks.
Adding to the complexity, the motifs throughout the show are derived from natural forms when they aren’t figurative, which gives many works a great pictorial punch and, sometimes, narrative import. History itself is present, as in a rather daunting suite of tapestries depicting four continents that was commissioned by Louis XVI but arrived too late for him to enjoy. (The French Revolution intervened.) An implicit celebration of the triumph of European power and colonialism, they are being exhibited together for the first time with their matching settees and armchairs.
This imperial ostentation is countered in adjacent galleries by textiles that expose the less benign side of global trade. Two elaborate Indian hangings, one painted and one embroidered, offer finely detailed accounts of clashes between colonial and indigenous forces. Opposite these is an English quilt printed with repeating scenes of encounters between Captain Cook and indigenous inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), including his killing by local residents. In the next gallery, a swath of cotton printed in France protests the African slave trade with alternating scenes of civilized Africans and barbaric white men.
Most of the textiles are drawn from the Met’s collection but have been exhibited rarely, if at all. Because of their hybrid nature, they often don’t fit cleanly into displays built around specific cultures. Bringing everything together required a collaboration of curators from nine departments — a record for the Met — overseen by Amelia Peck, a curator in the museum’s department of American decorative arts who also edited the show’s magnificent catalog.
Some items originated from commissions by visiting merchants and dignitaries; others were designed by local entrepreneurs to cater to foreign tastes. Such enterprise was especially fertile in India, which produced textiles not only for markets in Europe and America but also for those of Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka. These include an 18th-century cotton jacket that has been intricately painted and dyed for the King of Siam’s royal guard, its back dominated by the large face of a grotesque demon.
A leitmotif in several galleries is the Indian palampore, a cotton bedcover or wall hanging depicting a tree of life surrounded by scrolling vine-and-flower patterns. These are the mother of all chintz (a variant of a Hindi word) and may well have originated in England and been sent to India as a template. But the Indians made them their own, producing versions in embroidered or dyed cotton that, in turn, inspired textile producers around the globe.
The Indian genius for elaborate dying and painting processes was a particular challenge to equal. The palampore narrative begins in the third gallery with an early-18th-century example made in India but with Japanese styling (a lacquerlike darkness and motif) that was intended to appeal to Dutch tastes of the moment. An especially extravagant example (sixth gallery) is a mid-18th-century Indian palampore embroidered in bright silk on gold cotton. A tree sprouts from a hillock reminiscent of a Chinese scholar’s rock, and its flowers — fantastical to the point of being otherworldly — are so finely stitched that they hardly seem handmade. The palampore saga culminates in the exhibition’s final gallery in a tree-of-life face-off: an Indian dyed version made for Dutch markets, an American appliqué version that resembles an extra-large piece of needlework and a spare, pale, almost neurasthenic Chinese rendition in shimmery silk embroidery on silk satin.
This confrontation is only one of many drop-dead moments in which pictorial power, astonishing skill and cultural cross-germination collude, and where the historical Western infatuation with all things exotic is strikingly apparent. The European absorption of Eastern styles and symbols is especially rich in a late-17th-century English tapestry attributed to the weaver John Vanderbank (sixth gallery), arrayed on a deep blue ground.
Some of its scenes feature turbaned pashas or entwined lovers of a distinctly Indian mien; others are inhabited by Chinese scholars and travelers and even an ornate pagoda. (A bright red parrot is more generally exotic.)
Another tour de force that must have been especially appealing to European aristocrats is a double-sided hanging from 18th-century China with, again, silk embroidery on silk-satin. One side is a deep yellow, the other a soft red. The main motif is a bouquet of flowers whose bold contained forms evince an Indian influence but whose container sits on a fanciful Chinese scholar’s rock pedestal. Miracle of miracles, the embroidery is absolutely identical and exquisitely finished on both sides. Even more memorable is how different the arrangement looks against the different colors, a lesson the Pointillists would surely have loved. It is easy to imagine, as the label suggests, that this was a bed curtain, with the red side visible to the people in bed and the yellow facing outside.
Cultures nearly clash in a towering tapestry of embroidered silk made in China for the Portuguese market in the first half of the 17th century. Dominating the opening gallery, it depicts the abduction of Helen by Paris and his Trojan cohort, based on European prints. Nonetheless, Chinese-style architecture, clouds and waves frame the battling Baroque bodies. The scrum also seems randomly dotted with the heads of Chinese lion-dogs and gorgons that, upon a closer look, appear to be part of the warriors’ gear — perhaps epaulets.
Not all hybridity was a long-distance affair. A handful of textiles in the show are the collaborations of cultures living side by side, as is the case with a wonderful gallery devoted to textiles produced in Spanish-ruled Mexico (where exquisite embroidery was a specialty) and South America (where descendants of the Inca had weaving skills superior to almost any on earth). Here, a fine Peruvian wedding mantle mixes geometric borders of Incan origin with a Spanish lattice pattern, and a Mexican shawl alternates bands of buzzy ikat weave with beguiling, friezelike scenes of people in pleasure boats or at social gatherings. The scenes alternate horizontally with the flowered vines that are among the exhibition’s central motifs.
Intensifying the vividness of the cross-cultural exchange is the sheer physical diversity of the textiles: the shifting techniques and materials tend to sharpen visual perception. There are so many wonders to peruse — and so much to see within each one — that “Interwoven Globe” will benefit as few shows do from repeated visits. Magnifying glasses, which the Met is not supplying, may prove useful.